The Crowdsourcing Sweatshop, Not Really

There is a lot going on in this review of the a SXSW session on the “dark side of social media” and the participants are raising really interesting points of view, but I want to focus in on one particular passage:

In many cases, companies have persuaded people to complete simple tasks for no pay at all, instead offering recognition within the volunteer community or points in the guise of a game. Mr. Zittrain called it “a wonderful Tom Sawyer syndrome.”

Crowdsourcing is not the virtual equivalent of a sweatshop. In fact, the notion is so preposterous that I find it difficult to argue against the point without resorting to just calling it preposterous. Ooops, I did it.

Here’s the difference, no one who is benefiting from the effects of crowdsourcing initiatives is achieving those benefits from forcible coercion and exploitation. Crowdsourcing initiatives don’t impose demands on the participant and at any time the person contributing can simply stop without consequences. This was the case with me and Foursquare, I stopped checking in.

I do believe that one of the challenges that any group who is initiating a crowdsourcing project has is finding the right mix of incentives and rewards that create a sense of fairness for company and consumer alike. Badges alone are not enough, actual rewards go a long way to creating sustainable equity and companies would be well advised to consider this in advance.